All are Welcome


Yesterday, I went to drop off some waivers to some of my students going to Valleyfair with me on Saturday. Each of the kids in the youth group can bring one friend with them on this trip. As I was standing in the entry, I heard hushed conversations between the kids.

What rang clear was, “Why don’t you just ask? He’s your friend.”

Two of my students walked down the steps along with a friend of theirs. Their friend asked, “Are Muslims welcome?”

Without hesitation, I say, “Of course!”

My older students says “Seeeee! I told you!” in an taunting voice, like it was an obvious yes.

Currently, I am reading What’s the Least I can Believe and Still be a Christian?: A Guide to What Matters Most by Martin Thielen for research for the series of hard questions I am exploring with my high schoolers this fall. Chapter 10 discusses the implications of judgmental Christianity and the damage it can do to people in and outside of the church. To conclude the end of the chapter, Thielen tells a story of a good friend who stopped attending church while going through messy divorce. A co-worker of the friend started pestering him to attend her church.

“One day she asked my friend, ‘Don’t you want to go to heaven?’ In weary exasperation he responded, ‘Not if it’s full of people like you’” (page 63).

And honestly, I feel quite the same way. The concluding line of the chapter is, “True Christians leave judgment to God.” Though I’m guessing for the young guy in my story above, there have been plenty of activities he has not be welcome to attend, plenty of criticism from other students who learned hate from the adults surrounding them, and plenty of sneers and jeers from people who hold prejudices. This is exactly the reason why we all need to strive for religious understanding and acceptance of others’ beliefs. When kids have to ask “Am I welcome?” because of exposure to judgmental Christianity, we have giant problem.

In Acts 10, there is a story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius, a centurion, has a vision and sends for Peter. When Peter arrives, Cornelius falls to Peter’s feet, but “Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal’” (v. 26). They continued to talk and went inside to find that many people had assembled. Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (v. 28). He continues, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to [God]. You know the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–[God] is Lord of all” (v. 34-36).

The disciples had to learn that they needed to interact with people of different faiths. Peter learned this through a vision that he had that all are welcome. Jesus cared for the outcasts, welcomed people of all religions, and loved the ones who society did not. Jesus called all to that life as well. We are called to welcome people into our communities.

Think about how many times this 6th grader has heard “You aren’t welcome” to have to ask me if he was allowed to come with us to Valleyfair. It honestly breaks my heart. My youth group will always be one where all are welcome. Because All are Welcome is one of my favorite hymns, I will leave you with the first stanza that guides my steps as I build my youth ministry.

Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions;
All are welcome, all are welcome.
All are welcome in this place.

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Interfaith Conversations as Social Change

Sunday, January 18, 2015 is the day in which I changed my mind about who could be involved in interfaith and social justice work. See, in my mind, for some reason, I thought it was just young people, people of my generation, who wanted to change the world, who wanted to work for compassion and understanding in their communities. I was wrong. So totally wrong. It wasn’t like I thought that people older than me didn’t also want to change the world. However, I have never had any direct experience with someone significantly older than me intentionally pursuing change within a community. But I am so glad my perspective and story evolved.

On Sunday, I went to a meeting of the Center for Interfaith Projects held at the Lutheran University Center on North Dakota State University’s campus. Ron Gaul, a member of the Fargo-Moorhead Secular Community, was speaking and holding a conversation on what it meant to be an agnostic atheist. I jumped at this opportunity because it is something that I haven’t learned a lot about. I have also been interested in this perspective for quite sometime. (Also, it was an easy way to complete assignments for a couple class, but you know, whatever).

I drug my boyfriend, Sam, along because I didn’t want to go alone. As we began to walk in, we strolled past the windows in the front. I looked in to see many smiling faces, but they were much older than I expected. We were greeted warmly at the door by one of the directors, and then led to chairs set up in a circle. Sam, one other person, and myself were by far the youngest ones there. I honestly did not expect this demographic. When I think of interfaith cooperation, my mind tends to think about young people, not old.

As the conversation begins, Ron told the group, of around 35 people, about the book Faithiest by Chris Stedman. He shared how he relates to this book and the ideas and stories that are in there. (Side note: This made me excited to read this book for my class, Faith in Dialogue, later this semester). Ron considers himself an agnostic atheist because he cannot without a doubt prove that there is not a god. Ron looks more towards science and rational explanations to shape the way he views the world. He also hold very many humanist perspectives as well. As Ron finished with sharing about himself, the conversation began to revolve around how we share our stories with one another and how to effectively and respectfully tell someone else about your faith or non-faith.

There was not a specific issue of social justice that was brought up during this conversation. However, I would argue that learning how to share our stories and the stories of others and interfaith dialogue can be considered a social justice issue. When we think about many social justice movements, many are centered around the stories that are told. Justice movements would not be possible without stories. These stories are able to captivate an audience and compel them to act. This is how movements start. Without stories, social change would not be possible.

Towards the end of the meeting, everyone had a chance to go around the circle and say what convictions they are a part of. We each got a chance to take part of story telling—sharing our stories to understand each other better. Through this, we were partaking in social change. Often in American culture, we do not talk about our faith convictions openly and in a setting that is friendly and welcoming. The meeting in and of itself was a part of social change. Interfaith dialogue is something that is needed for our ever-changing and growing world. Many of our neighbors do not share the same faith as we do. It is important to know how to dialogue with and be respectful of people of other convictions. By learning how to respect one another’s identity, we can make the world a better place. I feel like my over-idealist tendencies are coming out here, but seriously, just listening can make things so much easier and break down so many barriers. God knows I need to learn how to listen better.

So what does this mean? Is an interfaith conversation really social change? Yes. I believe it is. It is a place where sincere, genuine conversations can happen that can really be life-changing for many people. I know my experience was. Maybe it wasn’t exactly life-changing, but I know there was a shift in how I view the world. My whole perspective on who could be involved in interfaith and social justice movements completely switched. Through participating in an act towards social change, I was able to open up my mind to think about who can be involved in and what constitutes as social change.